[Book Review] American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems

In this post, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi reviews Joseph Baker’s and Buster Smith’s latest book American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York University Press 2015).


Americans have never ceased to amaze foreign observers with their high level of belief in souls,benny-bh spirits, and gods. Pew Research Centre (2014) found that nearly 9 in 10 (89%) Americans believe in ‘God or a universal spirit.’ Nevertheless, over the past few decades a significant rise in the proportion of Americans who were investing less and less in religious affiliation and beliefs has been noted. Kosmin and Keysar (2011) showed that the proportion of unaffiliated Americans has been growing since 1990. A few have even embraced the clearly unpopular labels of atheists or agnostics, despite Smith’s (2015:229) acknowledgment of the stigmatized and deviant status of atheism in America.

What the book is really about is secularity, the state of being secular, because ‘secularism’ usually refers to a vision of a world less affected by religion, and the authors indeed use the term secularity a few times. So the book is about secular Americans, from the unaffiliated to the atheists.

What is the theoretical framework? Baker and Smith state: “instead of a binary distinction, religiosity and secularity should be understood as poles of a continuum, ranging from thorough irreligion to zealotry” (p.  6). Moreover, “We consider theistic dis- or nonbelief to be the most salient marker of one’s secular identity. That is, self-identifying  as someone who does not believe in god is a more prominent marker of identity than saying one is not affiliated with an organized religion” (p. 16).

There is indeed a clear behavioral dividing line between spirit world adherents and non-adherents, and research indicates that the one question “Do you believe in God?” does a good job in separating two distinct populations.

I find myself really puzzled by another statement:  “Although criticism of religion is central to understanding secularism, restricting secularity today to opposition to religion denies secularists’ potential for edifying and positive values, furthering the polemical claim that to be secular is necessarily to be immoral” (p. 6). First, the rejection of belief in spirits is not criticism, but a total disengagement. Baker and Smith later report that 63% of atheists in one sample were uninterested in religion (p. 100). Second, the reference to “edifying and positive values” sounds like apologetics. The findings reported in the book demonstrate that the less religious and the irreligious are likely to be more politically progressive, but that will not persuade those who think they are immoral.

Is there a unique American secularization? The authors describe American freethought, starting in the eighteenth century, and offer a chronology of the ups and downs of religiosity in the United States, leading to the Great Abdicating after 1990. They connect the Great Abdicating to the 1960s counterculture and changes in the US family, together with political polarization and the “Culture Wars”. They do report a correlation between growing political polarization and the percentage of the unaffiliated in the population, as well as the tendency for the unaffiliated to vote Democrat in presidential elections (p. 79).

In their historical survey, they neglect the struggles over the secularization of public space and public education. Until 1934, playing baseball on Sunday was a major issue, and the elimination of Sunday blue laws is still continuing. Another aspect of the Culture Wars was the secularization of education, starting  already in the nineteenth century with  elite academic institutions  (White, 1896), and  then affecting all universities, colleges, and public schools in a trickle down process  (Hofstadter, 1963). Does anybody remember that until 1960, the American Baptist Convention considered The University of Chicago an affiliated institution?

It should be emphasized, something that the authors do not do, that after 1960 public education was completely secularized through legal rulings. Engel v. Vitale (1962), which disallowed prayers, and  Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), which disallowed Bible reading, could be compared in their impact to the 1954 Brown decision, related to the same social and historical forces. Similarly, recent challenges to the teaching of evolution followed the great historical loss by the Religious Right over religious activities in the schools. McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982), Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), and Kitzmiller, et al.  v. Dover School District, et al. (2005) became milestones in public secularization. Legal rulings do not change public opinion in many cases, but these symbolic (and concrete) victories added to the growing confidence of secular Americans.

Despite American exceptionalism, Baker and Smith show that the United States fits the worldwide correlation (p.74) between secularity and the Human Development Index (p. 203). What happens in North America is part of a global trend. The political context of secularity, which is discussed at length in the book, is also not unique to the United States.

The authors doubt the universality of sex differences in secularity, and  state  that “among Western populations, women are disproportionately prone to religiosity, in spite of the patriarchal power structure of most organized religions” (p. 141). However, a recent Pew report compared men and women on religiosity around the world, with data collected in 192 countries. It included 631 comparisons. There were 393 with no significant differences, 238 significant differences with women scoring higher, and just 4 with men scoring higher (Pew, 2016). So women’s higher religiosity may not be just a Western phenomenon, and the same goes for women’s lower secularity.

The book offers a wealth of writing genres, unlike a typical sociology text. It presents survey data together with vignettes and case studies, such as that of  Lester Young Ward, one of the pioneers of US sociology (pp. 26-34), and quotations from W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. There are also interviews, one with David Tamayo, Leader of Hispanic American Freethinkers (pp. 126-131), and then two interviews with secularists who tried to get elected to political office, which is next to impossible in the United States. My only complaint is that the book has 47 pages of detailed footnotes. The academic convention which expects the reader to tolerate this division of attention is unrealistic. Most of the material in the footnotes is interesting and important, and should be included in the main text.


Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Knopf.

Kosmin, B.A.  & Keysar, A.  (2011).  AMERICAN NONES: THE PROFILE OF THE NO RELIGION POPULATION. (with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf

Pew Research Center (2014). Importance of Religion and Religious Beliefs. Pew Research Centre, November 2015. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/chapter-1-importance-of-religion-and-religious-beliefs/#belief-in-god

Pew Research  Center (2016). The Gender Gap in Religion Around  the World.  PEW RESEARCH CENTER, March 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

Smith, J (2010). Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism. Sociology of Religion. 72 (2) 215-237.

White, A. D. (1896/1993). A history of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi earned a Ph.D.  (clinical psychology and personality)  from Michigan State University in 1970. Since then, he has been the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of  22 books and more than 300 reviews, articles, and book chapters, focusing on personality development, history of psychology, the psychology of religion, and politics. Among his best known works are Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity  (2015), Psychoanalysis and Theism (2010), The Psychology of Religious Belief, Experience, and Behaviour (with Michael Argyle, 1997), and Despair and Deliverance (1992).

CFP: International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

Sixth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society

23-24 May 2016

The Catholic University of America

Washington D.C., USA

Current Submission Deadline*:
 18 March 2015

PLEASE NOTE: The Fifth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society is taking place at the University of California at Berkley, 16-17 April 2015. Proposals are still being accepted for a short time. Click here for more details.

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Event: American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting

22-25 November 2014

San Diego, CA, USA

The American Academy of Religion brings thousands of professors and students, authors and publishers, religious leaders and interested laypersons to its Annual Meeting each year. Co-hosted with the Society of Biblical Literature, the Annual Meetings are the largest events of the year in the fields of religious studies and theology. More than 1,000 events—academic sessions, additional meetings, receptions, tours, and workshops—will be offered.

Most sessions will take place at the San Diego Convention Center located at 111 W Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101. Conference hotels are located within easy walking distance of the Convention Center. San Diego is just 120 miles south of Claremont, CA, where the 2014 NSRN Conference takes place 19-20 November. Several NSRN presenters and attendees will also be present at the AAR Annual Meeting.

Pew Research: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation

Yesterday Pew research published findings that “One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation

According to the write up, “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling…In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).” 

To Watch: “None of the Above”

The PBS television program, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly is airing a three part miniseries on the rise of the “nones” in the United States. The first episode starts on Oct. 12. I believe they partnered with Pew to create it. Read more here

“WASHINGTON DC (October 9, 2012) — Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, the national PBS television program produced by Thirteen/WNET, is launching a three-part mini-series, “None of the Above: The Rise of the Religiously Unaffiliated,” based largely on a new survey about the views of the 46 million Americans who say they are not affiliated with any particular religion.

The first segment, None of the Above: Who Are They, will begin airing on public television stations nationwide on October 12, 2012. It provides an overview of who these religiously unaffiliated people are and what they believe. The story will be reported by R&E Host Bob Abernethy and produced by Marcia Henning.

The second segment, None of the Above: Political Implications, which begins airing on October 19, 2012, focuses on how the growing number of religiously unaffiliated citizens could affect elections and the role of religion in politics. The segment will be reported by R&E Managing Editor Kim Lawton and produced by Patti Jette Hanley.

The third segment None of the Above: Religious Implications, which begins airing October 26, 2012, looks at the possible influence of this trend on religious congregations and institutions. This segment will be reported by R&E Contributing Correspondent Deborah Potter and produced by Susan Goldstein.”

CFP for International Conference on Mormonism in collaboration with European Observatory of Religions and Secularism

Please see below for details of the conference, for further information please contact bcellard@numericable.fr

International Conference on Mormonism: The evolution of Mormonism from sect to Church and from Church to sects

Université de Bordeaux 3

6 et 7 décembre 2012

Maison des Sciences de l’Homme d’Aquitaine

Organized par Bernadette RIGAL-CELLARD with the Master Religions et
Sociétés and CLIMAS (EA 4196), Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3

In collaboration with:

Carter CHARLES, CLIMAS (Cultures et littératures des mondes anglophones)

Régis DERICQUEBOURG (CNRS : sociétés, religions, laïcités, UMR 85-82,
axe religions en ultramodernité

The European Observatory of Religions and Secularism

Call for papers

The 2012 Mormonism conference is the sequel to the first French conference on Mormonism (Bordeaux  2009). It will address the issues arising from its institutional evolution.

The currently admitted typology of religious groups includes, sketchily, the cult, the sect, the denomination, the Church, the movement. All groups will not necessarily move from one level to the next and a number of them may stagnate, willingly or not, or simply disappear. It is the prophetic and organizational qualities of the founder(s) and of the successors that dictate the evolution of the group as much as the social and political surroundings.

Mormonism is one of the most interesting religions to study in this regard for, since its birth in 1830, it has operated constant changes that led its major institution, the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints, to move from the status of “sect”—in the sense of a group separating itself from a major tradition to follow a radical prophet—to
that of denomination, and then to reach the crowning status of Church,
at least in its native land.

If the general history of Mormonism is relatively well documented, it is not the case concerning all the steps it has climbed in less than two centuries, when most of its competitors, born in the same conditions, have not succeeded as well. How has Mormonism gone from the complete separatism of its early decades to an almost complete acceptance at home and in several foreign countries?

The conference will examine:

– the status of the main institution, the Salt Lake City Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints: if the Church type is defined notably by its great inclusivism, a rather liberal discipline, membership mostly through birth into the religion, how can we reconcile the exclusivism, strict discipline, and dependence on proselytism…, of Mormonism with such status? Has Mormonism only reached the denomination level?

– the charismatic and organizational strategies implemented by the founding prophet, Joseph Smith, his immediate successor, the organizer prophet Brigham Young, and the following prophets and presidents in
order to bolster membership and obtain official recognition;

– the agents of interaction with the surrounding society and government in the USA; the management of idiosyncrasies: are they blurred or emphasized?

– the modifications of doctrine and/or of rituals to obtain recognition,

– the function played by lobbies and by the media (national or controlled by the group) to boost the  normalization of the relationships between the group and the outside.

The beginning of 2012 showing the strength of Mitt Romney’s candidacy for the Republican nomination:

– what strategies does his team rely on to transform his Mormonism into a positive force?

– what impact could his candidacy exert on the relationships between Church and State, religion and politics in the USA?

Moreover, it is obvious that if the changes undergone by Mormonism are mostly visible in its home nation, they also play out in its international branches. The conference will thus address the issue of its status outside the USA:

– the evolving conditions of its recognition by foreign societies and governments;

– public relations and lobbies abroad.

Finally, since in the process of denominationalization, of institutionalization, a heretofore sectarian group can  no longer appeal to those who chose it (or would choose it) for its original fire, it falls prey to inner schisms. Mormonism, in fact, did not have to wait for this process to unfold as it begot dissidence in its first decades
already (Reorganized Church now Community of Christ as one among several…). The conference will look into the roots of these past and current schisms (such as the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and into
their consequences:

– are they the result of mere internal power struggles?

– what role do doctrinal and ritual alterations play?

– do these groups maintain institutional and human relations with the
Church in Salt Lake?

– does their mere existence exert  pressure,  directly or indirectly, on this institution and force it to evolve, and if so, how does it work?

– what relationships do the schismatic groups entertain among themselves?

– what evolutions have they undergone in the past, and what evolutions
can we predict for them?

Send a 20 line abstract and a short biography before September 15th, 2012 to: bcellard@numericable.fr

No funding can be granted to participants


“L’évolution du mormonisme de la secte à l’Église, de l’Église aux sectes”

Université de Bordeaux 3

 6 et 7 décembre 2012

Maison des Sciences de l’Homme d’Aquitaine

 Colloque international organisé par Bernadette RIGAL-CELLARD en partenariat avec le Master Religions et Sociétés et l’Équipe d’accueil CLIMAS (EA 4196) de l’Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3

En collaboration avec :

Carter CHARLES, CLIMAS (Cultures et Littératures des Mondes Anglophones)

Régis DERICQUEBOURG (CNRS : sociétés, religions, laïcités, UMR 85-82)

L’Observatoire européen des religions et de la laïcité

Appel à communications :

Faisant suite au premier colloque universitaire en France sur le mormonisme que nous avions organisé en décembre 2009 et qui abordait son rapport aux sociétés et aux États, celui-ci interroge les modalités de son évolution institutionnelle.

La typologie des groupes religieux actuellement reconnue inclut, schématiquement, le culte, la secte, la dénomination, l’Église, le mouvement. Tous ne vont pas forcément passer de l’un à l’autre, un certain nombre pouvant stagner, volontairement ou non, à chacun de ces niveaux, ou disparaître. C’est la qualité prophétique et organisationnelle du/des fondateur/s et des successeur/s qui dicte l’évolution ou non du dit groupe tout autant que le climat social et politique extérieur. Le mormonisme constitue une des religions les plus intéressantes à étudier dans ce cadre car depuis sa naissance en 1830 il opère des mutations constantes qui ont fait passer son institution principale, l’Église de Jésus-Christ des saints des derniers jours, du statut de « secte », au sens de groupe se détachant d’une tradition majeure pour suivre un prophète radical, à celui de « dénomination », pour atteindre, dans son pays au moins, le couronnement de celui d’« Église ».

Si l’histoire générale du mormonisme est relativement bien documentée, ce n’est pas le cas de toutes ces subtiles étapes qu’il a franchies en moins de deux siècles, étapes que la plupart de ses concurrents nés dans les mêmes conditions n’ont jamais pu dépasser. Comment a-t-il progressé de la séparation la plus absolue dans ses débuts à l’inclusion quasi aboutie en 2012 dans son pays d’origine et dans plusieurs autres pays, et au chiffre d’environ quatorze millions de baptisés dans le monde aujourd’hui ?

Les participants se concentreront sur :

– l’examen du statut d’Église de son institution principale : en effet si le type Église se définit notamment par un grand inclusivisme, une discipline libérale, une appartenance essentiellement par naissance…, comment concilier l’exclusivisme, la discipline stricte, la dépendance sur le prosélytisme…, du mormonisme avec le dit statut, ou alors ne relèverait-il encore que du type dénomination ?

– les stratégies charismatiques et organisationnelles déployées par le prophète fondateur, Joseph Smith, son successeur immédiat le prophète organisateur Brigham Young, et les prophètes présidents suivants afin d’élargir le noyau initial de disciples et obtenir la reconnaissance statutaire ;

– les agents de l’interaction avec la société environnante et le gouvernement aux États-Unis ; la gestion des idiosyncrasies : s’agit-il de les minorer, de les maximiser ?

– les modifications de la doctrine et/ou des rituels pour obtenir la reconnaissance ;

– la participation des médias nationaux et des médias contrôlés par le groupe à l’opération de normalisation des rapports groupe religieux/extérieur.

Le début de 2012 démontrant la solidité de la candidature de Mitt Romney à la nomination républicaine :

– quelles stratégies son équipe utilise-t-elle pour transformer son mormonisme en atout et non en handicap ?

– Quel impact sa candidature peut-elle avoir sur les rapports entre Église et État, religion et politique aux États-Unis ?

En outre, il est bien évident que si les mutations du mormonisme s’élaborent essentiellement aux États-Unis, elles se manifestent également dans ses implantations internationales. On interrogera alors le statut dont il relève en dehors de son pays d’origine :

– les modalités évolutives de la reconnaissance ou non du mormonisme par les sociétés et les gouvernements étrangers ;

– les activités de relations publiques, médiatiques, à l’étranger…

Enfin, dès lors qu’un mouvement naguère minoritaire s’institutionnalise, il ne peut plus satisfaire tous ceux qui l’avaient (ou l’auraient) choisi pour son feu originel, et il s’expose par conséquent à de nouvelles ruptures. Le mormonisme n’a pas attendu la reconnaissance extérieure pour être sillonné de courants schismatiques puisqu’il les a suscités dès ses premières décennies (Église réorganisée, maintenant Communauté du Christ, entre autres…). Les participants examineront les mobiles exacts de ces scissions passées et actuelles (les divers mouvements fondamentalistes par exemple), et l’impact de celles-ci :

– sont-elles le résultat de simples luttes internes pour le pouvoir ?

– quel rôle jouent les modifications doctrinales et rituelles ?

– ces groupes entretiennent-ils des rapports institutionnels et/ou humains avec l’institution majoritaire de Salt Lake ?

– la pression que leur existence exerce, directement ou indirectement, sur celle-ci la fait-elle évoluer, et si oui comment ?

– quels rapports les groupes dissidents entretiennent-ils entre eux ?

– quelle évolution les groupes nouveaux ainsi constitués ont-ils suivie ou vont-ils suivre ?

Envoyer une proposition de 20 lignes, une biographie réduite, avant le 15